Gosh, what a difference a year makes in Sierra magazine’s list of “Cool Schools,” its ranking of green colleges. Last year, the University of Colorado at Boulder ranked No. 1, while Green Mountain College was 35th. This year, CU is at 13th and Green Mountain is tops.
Dickinson College went from 19th in 2009 to No. 2, and Stanford University zoomed up from 26th to 5th. Yale University went from 14th to 26th, and Emory University fell 10 notches to 42nd.
You might assume from such fluctuations that sustainability programs went haywire in the past year. But little changed, it seems, other than Sierra‘s ranking methodology. Energy issues were given more weight in this year’s survey, Sierra editors say, but that answer probably won’t satisfy the longtime critics of these green ratings.
The rating and ranking game has moved into college sustainability programs, to the great frustration of sustainability directors everywhere—in part because of results like these. Recently, a group of leading institutions signed a letter asking organizations like Sierra, the Sustainability Endowments Institute, and the Princeton Review to follow a set of eight principles, like maintaining transparency and following standard metrics, which could make surveys easier to fill out. Many sustainability directors would like to see the various ratings systems rely on the metrics used in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System—or Stars—developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Last year, Ithaca College very publicly declared that the Sierra survey was too much of a hassle and told the magazine it wouldn’t participate.
Don’t expect the questions on the survey to change next year—not to appease sustainability administrators, at least. “At the end of the day, I’m a journalist and the magazine is a journalistic endeavor, and we would like to maintain our own research methodology and investigative methods,” says Avital Binshtock, an editor at Sierra who oversees the Cool Schools project. However, she is quick to acknowledge the limitations of her journalistic endeavor: As the membership magazine of the Sierra Club, Sierra is not exactly a neutral observer. Additionally, the Cool Schools list is compiled by data self-reported by the colleges, and Ms. Binshtock says that her staff cannot verify the provided information.
She says any fabrications or exaggerations should be countered by Sierra‘s new effort to be fully transparent—the magazine has posted not only its methodology and grading rubric, but also the surveys from all of the participating schools.
But still, sustainability efforts are complicated and difficult to compare across institutions, and therefore difficult to evaluate through simple numbers. A quick glance at the list leads to a lot of confounding questions about the methodology. For example, Emory University lost points on its transportation efforts from last year to this year, even though Emory’s sustainable-transportation program—which includes pushing more students and employees to bike or bus to the campus—is one of the more celebrated efforts in the country. Emory also lost points in the efficiency category, even though the university has a robust green-building program and devoted additional money to efficiency programs in the past year.
“We haven’t cut back on our sustainability initiatives at all—we’ve expanded,” says Ciannat Howett, the sustainability director at the university.
The University of Colorado at Boulder issued a statement about its placement on the list, saying the rankings don’t seem to reflect that the energy it draws from the grid has gotten significantly cleaner in recent years.
“Going forward, we have taken decisions to build CU’s sustainability efforts around the framework and metrics endorsed by the higher-education sustainability community and embodied in STARS … an approach that complements Sierra’s intent but quantifies performance differently,” the statement said. “For instance, we support carbon-reduction programs here in Colorado that benefit our broader community but are apparently less of a factor in Sierra’s evaluation.”
Meanwhile, gains on the list could also be inexplicable. Stanford got more points from 2009 to 2010 in the energy-supply category, even though the university’s energy supply—primarily based on natural gas—doesn’t seem to have changed recently. (This is perhaps a result of the emphasis on cleaner energy in the evaluation. Ms. Binshtock, who is a Stanford alumna, promised to fax Stanford’s 2009 survey to The Chronicle, but it had not arrived at press time. Her undergraduate alma mater — the University of California at Los Angeles — dropped 16 places, to 25th. Update Aug. 18: Ms. Binshtock sent the fax here twice, the first time immediately after we talked, but for various reasons it took a while to get routed to me. It confirms that Stanford’s energy mix remains unchanged. But the plot thickens — click here to read about some peculiarities with the Stanford survey.)
“Graders were primarily interested in the actual practices of schools, not in each school’s ability to fill out a survey,” Sierra says in the article about its methodology. But it seems that the effort in filling out the survey was indeed crucial. That may be one reason that Yale University’s ranking dropped—it seems that administrators there did not burn a lot of time filling out the survey.
Green Mountain College, on the other hand, gave it a lot of attention. The provost sent out a memo this year directing the college to concentrate on efforts that would help it get a higher score on the Sierra list, says Amber Garrard, the college’s sustainability coordinator. She says that the college believed scoring high on the list would be important because Sierra magazine reaches an audience the college wants to attract.
She, too, would rather see Sierra use Stars metrics, and she has reservations about the accuracy of ratings systems like Sierra‘s. But, “from a sustainability coordinator’s perspective, whatever helps us to ‘walk the talk’ can be helpful,” she wrote in an e-mail message. Whatever their problems, “if these ranking systems can help motivate us to move in that direction, they can be valuable.”